Flexible benefits supports environmental and charitable causes

Flex has till got boundaries to cross but a high-growth area for these schemes concerns the environment. Initiatives extend from the popular bikes-for-work scheme, to offerings such as carbon trading, says Liz Ellis, HR director at Danone UK.

Flexible benefits schemes seem to have been with us for a long time but there is still some way to go until they are commonplace in all sectors. There are still plenty of organisations that could gain from their introduction.

Flex offers many advantages and the move towards total reward helps to ensure that employees fully understand their benefits and their true value.

Flex can support the concept of employer branding and can really underpin the culture within an organisation by offering choice, individuality and support to the messages that management wants to give. It can also be a supporting mechanism for cultural change. At Danone, our flexible benefits policy reflects the company culture, which is one of supporting the individual and of personal choice. It also has a clear emphasis on health and wellbeing, which is one of our key focuses.

Flex offers human resources a fantastic opportunity for staff to engage openly with the employer, fostering a proactive dialogue both in the run up to the introduction of flex, and during the annual enrolment period of a scheme.

The introduction of flex also offers real opportunity in terms of harmonisation, which is especially relevant in merger and acquisition situations. Often a company will introduce flex as a way of making sure that the benefits packages that groups of employees from previously different companies receive are fair.

Flex can also offer opportunities to reduce organisational costs, with many employers reinvesting tax and national insurance savings made through salary sacrifice back into a scheme.

In addition, it can encourage and support the culture of employee self-service by giving employees the responsibility for updating their own records.

The challenge an organisation has when it introduces flex is to ensure that the scheme meets the aims of the employer, is continually refreshed and that it addresses the needs of everyone, not just those of a particular section of the organisation.

Looking ahead to the future of flex, I believe we can expect to see a shift to providing less prescriptive and generic solutions, such as gym membership, to offering employees options such as wellbeing accounts to empower them with personal choice. We have introduced a scheme like this for our Danone Dairies division, where employees can save between £10 and £50 a month to spend on health and wellbeing benefits, with the company contributing half the amount again into their flex pot.

Another interesting, high-growth area of flex concerns the environment. This is not just initiatives such as the popular bikes-for-work scheme, but those that encourage activities such as carbon trading. The challenge here is to make these additions credible and sustainable rather than a fad and ensure that they are easy for the average employee to understand.

Supporting charitable causes via flex is also on the agenda. Give As You Earn (GAYE) is already in existence, but the emergence of the charity card is a new way for employees to support causes. The charity card is a card that staff can save money to and then decide how and when they want to make a donation to a charity throughout the year, as opposed to GAYE which is more static.

At the same time, benefit providers face challenges in coming up with smarter ways of providing existing benefits. The issue for retail voucher providers, for example, is the emergence of credit cards that employers can give to employees pre-loaded with an amount of money and which also give discounts in certain stores.

In all, although flex has already been introduced by many organisations, there are still opportunities for these companies to build on the package they already have. For those employers that haven’t yet bitten the bullet, they may find that in time flex becomes the industry norm and something that their employees expect them to introduce.

Liz Ellis, HR director, Danone UK